The Trinity: The Nicene Creed

Ethan Fordham   -  

I would like you to think about this statement: 

There once was a time when the Son was not.” 

What do you think of when you read that statement? Is it confusing? It seems abstract. What does it mean when it refers to a time when the Son was not? Maybe you read this statement and you do not have a problem with it. Well, to clarify, the “Son” is the Son we read of in the Bible; the Son of God who took on human flesh to redeem a people from sin and reconcile God to them and them to God. But when you read this statement above do any alarm bells go off in your mind when you read that? 

In the fourth century, a churchman named Arius made the statement above. Except, it wasn’t simply a phrase, it was actually a little ditty that his followers would sing. The musical nature of the phrase allowed it to spread quickly. Arius’s song was a public statement about what he and his followers believed about the Son of God. To say “there once was a time when the Son was not” was a theological statement. That is, there was a time when the Son did not exist. 

One of the fundamental and Biblical beliefs concerning the nature of God is that He is eternal. With God there is not a time when He was not; God always is. God’s eternal existence places Him outside of any and all constraints that exist for beings in time. You and I experience time; we live in a succession of moments. But, that is not true of an eternal being. Louis Berkhof defined God’s eternality as “that perfection of God whereby He is elevated above all temporal limits and all succession of moments, and possesses the whole of His existence in one indivisible present” (60). To put it another way, God’s existence simply is, and because He simply is He cannot undergo or be subject to a moment-by-moment existence. Now, this is hard to understand because our whole lives are a succession of moments. We are born, live, and then die. But, it is not so with God. So, when Arius claimed that there was a time when the Son was not, he explicitly means that the Son is not God. Rather, for Arius, the Son is a creature created by God. 

Now, you might be thinking how anyone could claim that! There are two things working in us that grant us the good impulse to recoil at the idea that the Son is a created being. The first thing is the Bible explicitly says otherwise. A hallmark text that explicitly states the divinity (the God-ness) of the Son is John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We have already said much about what the Bible states concerning the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in our last post. However, Arius, his followers, and those who still follow his line of thinking to this day found/find ways to skirt around and twist what the Bible says to meet the needs of their teaching. That leads us to the other thing that grants to us the good impulse to deny any teaching that says the Son is a created being. What’s different about this other impulse though is that we might not be aware of it in the same way as we are of the Biblical impulse.  

The church needed to respond to Arius in a formal way. In 325AD, the church gathered for the first ecumenical council in Nicaea. To call the gathering of church leaders ecumenical means that it was universal. One could say that the council was a gathering of pastors and church leaders that represented the whole of the Christian church at that time. Because of this, their deliberations and findings should bear much weight on our thinking. Now, we ought to be careful when examining the findings of church councils in the past. Their finds can only be true in so far as they faithfully represent the teachings of the scripture. 

This is what the hundreds of church leaders aimed to do at Nicaea. They needed to deal with the Arian teaching. For three months, they hammered out the issue. The core question was this: what is the relationship between the Father and the Son? The Arians claimed that the relationship between the Father and Son was one of creator and creature. But, the Bible does not talk about Jesus as a mere creature! The Churchmen dealt with this teaching by writing a creed. Dr. R. Scott Clark said “our word creed comes from the Latin word credo, ‘I believe.’ A creed is typically a short statement of faith.” So when we say they wrote a creed, this means that they wrote a short doctrinal statement that is meant to express what Christians believe about a doctrine. They produced the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was been held by Bible-believing Christians in every major era of the church (Carter). It is a statement on the relationship between the Father and Son, but it is more than that. It is a statement on the doctrine of the Trinity. It is hands down one of the if not the most important statements on the Trinity. This is the second impulse you might not be aware of. We live in the theological heritage of this creed. In the past, Christians knew this creed; they were aware of its influence and importance. It has survived, edified, and taught the church since its birth. I do not have a single doubt that the Nicene Creed has influenced your understanding of the Trinity, even if this is the first time you have heard about it. I want you to be aware of this impulse. I want you to know this creed. 

So, how did the council deal with the question about the relationship between the Father and the Son? For now, I will allow their words to stand on their own. Read this. Study this. Guard your theology of the Trinity with these words. This is worth believing. This is simply Biblical. This is the Trinity. 

I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son;] who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

  • The words “and the Son” in brackets indicate an addition made in 381AD at the Council of Constantinople. An issue worth study but for another time. 
  • Holy Catholic Church simply means universal and does not resemble what we know as Roman Catholic.